The tragic death of Trayvon Martin is an extreme example of the danger of stereotyping and profiling and how it damages our increasingly diverse society. It also highlights the white privilege many of us have who will never be mistaken for a criminal regardless of our appearance or actions.
When I was Trayvon Martin's age, I had engaged in many illegal activities, did not commonly achieve A's and B's in school, and teachers did not describe me as cheerful. I did enter an in-patient treatment facility for my addiction to drugs and alcohol, where I arrogantly looked down on many of my fellow addicts. I was different from the quick-to-fight blue-collar kid transferred over from juvenile detention, the sexually ambiguous goth kid in eyeliner, and the gang member who had been a corner dealer.
Except I wasn't. I had done many of the same things that they had done. Gradually as I got to know their stories and was confronted with my own situation, I realized the injustice of my prejudice. What pedestal could I stand on as a drug addict and dealer to judge others? I also became aware of the privilege of being white, straight, middle class, and suburban. I had received the benefit of the doubt from police and other authorities. I could talk my way out of a situation with lies that were believed. When parties in the suburbs got busted, we were told to go home and parents were called. A few miles away, we would have been arrested in paddy wagons.
And I could dress as grungy, ripped, and messy as I wanted without arousing suspicions. If at the age of 17 I had been walking in George Zimmerman's gated community, I doubt that he would have found me suspicious or followed me. He probably should have. Instead, Trayvon -- armed with Skittles -- was suspiciously followed and shot dead. The attempt in recent weeks to attack Trayvon's character is beside the point. He was a normal teenager, should not have been considered a threat, and frankly appears a much more promising and polite teen than I, and many of my more privileged friends, were.
Trayvon was suspicious because he was a young black male. Seeing the photos of friends and colleagues with their hoodies the past few weeks on social networks, many would probably appear similarly suspicious to Mr. Zimmerman. I appreciated the photo of a group of Harvard Law School students that strikingly makes the point. Geraldo Rivera's comment that Trayvon should not have been wearing a hoodie is like telling a rape victim she should not have worn a short skirt. There is a difference between being aware of one's surroundings or viewing suspicious activities and profiling someone because of race and fashion.
I am reminded of an incident fifteen years ago when we were moving our first office at Public Allies, and two of the women I worked with, both African American Howard University graduates in sweats, decided to treat themselves to a nice lunch. They kept waiting to be seated and were being treated rudely and when they complained were told to take their attitude back to the ghetto. They weren't from the "ghetto." I learned that one of the privileges of being white is that I can wear whatever I want and people don't assume I'm a problem. They don't follow me in the mall. They wouldn't even arrest me when they should have. I posted a photo of myself in a hoodie to show solidarity, but I look more silly than anything else.
And this privilege works at a systemic level, too. In 1999, The New York Times Magazine did an article about racial profiling in which Los Angeles cops admitted that they were as likely to make drug arrests at the dorms of UCLA as they would in the poor neighborhoods of South Central. But they weren't raiding the dorms, just the neighborhoods.
When we assume that young people, especially young people of color in poor neighborhoods, are the problem, we are actually missing the solution. At Public Allies, we've identified and developed over 4,400 young leaders -- mostly young people of color -- during the past two decades. We've seen the teenage mother become a lawyer and White House staff member, the deli worker become an advocate for the disabled, the former gang member build low income housing, the high school drop out earn a Masters and lead a program to help young people get to college. Yes they may wear baggy pants and hoodies, but they carry with them intelligence, caring, and dreams that our communities desperately need. Many unfortunately are seen as suspicious by some in our society. They are the solution.
America's promise is that by our initiative and hard work we can achieve our dreams. Our race and fashion should not limit that. I was a problem, but because of my background and the support of many others who believed in me when I probably didn't deserve it, I was eventually able to achieve some of my dreams. Many young people of color who have not done the things I did can't achieve their dreams because they are looked upon as problems, not solutions. We need them. Trayvon Martin was not the problem. He was part of the solution.
Paul Schmitz is the author of Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up and CEO of Public Allies, a national AmeriCorps program that develops young community leaders.